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I’ve been playing a lot of GTA IV recently — that’s why I missed last week’s update — and what really stands out for me is that the game doesn’t feel unfocused even though it has many different types of gameplay. A lot of games with that much stuff to do feel disjointed: one time you’re driving and another time you’re shooting, but it feels like two separate games slapped together. GTA feels very consistent throughout.
I believe this is because each of GTA gameplays is a different dimension of the same core focus. The focus is to be a gangster in New York City, and everything else flows from that. Driving, shooting and handling relationships are different parts of being a gangster, so it all feels very consistent.
Each of those dimensions of gameplay combines to make an experience that’s richer than each dimension individually. Combining driving and shooting makes the whole larger than the sum of those two parts because the intersection of those two aspects creates new gameplay: killing enemies by driving over them, shooting enemies in cars, shooting while driving, etc. Because they’re two dimensions of the same core gameplay, their effect multiplies instead of simply adding up.
A counter-example to this multiplicative effect would be Mario Party. Mario Party has a lot of different types of gameplay — dozens of mini-games are available. But each mini-game is separate from the others, so each new mini-game just adds to the total of gameplay, it doesn’t combine with anything else. Each mini-game is a separate game entirely, it’s not another dimension of the same core gameplay.
You could remove a bunch of mini-games from Mario Party with very little impact on the game. Remove driving or shooting from GTA however and you’ve changed the game entirely.
Exploring one core concept with multiple dimensions of gameplay makes for a richer experience. Each part combines with the others to create a very large amount of possibilities for players. A lot of games follow this approach: Assassin’s Creed (stealth, acrobatics and combat), Gran Turismo (racing and car tuning), Civilization (strategy, diplomacy, expansion), etc.
Focusing on a single dimension of gameplay is easier however, as it lets you focus all of your energy on one thing. Guitar Hero does one single thing but does it very well, so does Ikaruga. Casual gamers like this type of game because it’s easier to approach. Fewer dimensions reduces complexity but also the richness of the game.
The most important thing is to know what the focus of your game is. Slapping together a bunch of types of gameplay doesn’t make a game good. Each part of the game — whether it has one dimension or many — should stem from a clear core experience.